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The first ever episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer opens on a shot of Sunnydale High School. This place is pivotal to the first three seasons of the show. In the world of Buffy, high school is not just hellish, it is literally built on a Hellmouth.
High school is hell.
In the Buffyverse, your personal demons take the form of actual fanged, bloodsucking monsters. Your fears become manifest and your dreams have important messages. This means that all the supernatural shenanigans aren’t just for the fun of it, they’re actually conveying important ideas and themes. So, it’s unsurprising that the entire premise of Buffy’s early seasons is that high school is hell.
But for now, all seems relatively normal. A boy and a girl break into the school’s science lab, which contains quite a large number of creepy-looking specimens. Keep an eye out for the juxtaposition of science and magic in later episodes and seasons of Buffy.
The boy is a daredevil type, and the girl seems nervous. Classic horror trope. But not all is as it seems. The girl hears a noise, and when the boy is distracted, her face becomes monstrous, her teeth become fanged, and she attacks him. Our very first vampire.
From the very first scene, we can see that women in the Buffyverse aren’t passive – they have agency and drive the narrative. This is part of the reason why Buffy is widely considered to be a feminist text.
It has been noted in the past that the decision to give the vampires in Buffy a demonic face makes it less morally dodgy when our heroine has to kill them. If you had Buffy staking people who looked completely human, that would make for uncomfortable viewing. It has to be made clear straight off that vampires are evil, demonic creatures which are no longer human beings, and that they can be killed without guilt or consequences. (This idea, however, that vampires have no residue of humanity will be challenged later on in the series.)
Now for our first look at the opening credits. The Buffy logo is not yet in its final form, and the theme tune is not yet as polished as it will be in later seasons. The character of Jesse, who we will meet a little later, was originally intended to be given a spot in the credits, to make it all the more shocking when he is later killed off, but budgets being what they were at the time, that wasn’t feasible.
The combination of gothic imagery and contemporary rock shows us that this is not your average horror. It’s a statement of intent. The audience is primed to expect subversion of the tropes which define the horror genre.
It must also be noted that the main cast is entirely made up of white actors. This is still far too common these days. I’ll be looking at how race and ethnicity is portrayed in Buffy across its seven seasons.
Our first encounter with Buffy Summers, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, is when she is in bed at night, dreaming. We see visions of what will come to pass in the rest of the first season: various monsters, demons, and vampires, but, most significantly, the vampire we will come to know as the Master. Buffy wakes up and is told by her mother, Joyce, to get ready for school.
Cue the peppy 90s rock, the glorious weather, and the outlandish fashion that heralds a brand-new day at Sunnydale High School. Buffy’s mom doesn’t do a lot for her daughter’s confidence by telling her: “Try not to get kicked out!”
Our first introduction to Xander (Nicholas Brendon) is on a skateboard that does not appear in any future episodes of the series. After a bit of good ol’ physical comedy, Xander asks his childhood friend, Willow (Alyson Hannigan) to be his study buddy. This is our first hint at Willow’s great intellect and Xander’s goofy charm. Jesse (Eric Balfour) joins the duo to tell them that a new girl has arrived.
Buffy has a meeting with Principal Flutie, who professes an accepting and forgiving attitude, and tears up Buffy’s transcripts… but quickly tapes them back together when he sees how “colourful” they are. Perhaps he is not as forgiving as he claims to be.
Buffy’s still not great at keeping her secret identity a secret, as she tells Flutie that the gym at her old school was full of “vampi… asbestos.” I find it a bit hard to believe that she’d be so careless, but hey, it’s the first episode, I can give it a pass. She also drops a stake when she bumps into Xander in the corridor. Xander is a bundle of hormones and awkwardness, which I find charming in this scene, but my opinion towards his attraction to Buffy may change as the season continues.
Buffy also meets Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), who seems perfectly pleasant, but then she displays her Queen Bee status by checking Buffy’s “coolness factor” and being mean to social outcast Willow. We learn later that Buffy’s previous high school status was very similar to Cordelia’s, but her empathy for Willow means that she chooses to avoid Cordelia’s company and seek Willow out instead.
But first, we have to introduce Mr. Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), the school librarian, who is in fact a Watcher, who prepares and trains Buffy for her duties as a Vampire Slayer. Giles’s glee when he smacks down the book of “Vampyr” in front of Buffy is wonderful to behold. He manages to convey the creepiness that the plot demands at this point but also the nerdy delight of being a Watcher.
In the next scene, we see some schoolgirls using prototype Buffy slang, with “neg” meaning “no” and “pos” meaning “yes”. These terms are never used again, thankfully, though I do still find it amusing as a first attempt. One of the girls has my favourite name in the world: Aphrodesia.
Getting the Gang Together
Buffy makes contact with Willow, keen to do well in school and make friends. Willow is surprised that Buffy would want to hang out with her. Alyson Hannigan’s delivery is so upbeat, even on lines that another actor would have played as forlorn, which gives Willow’s character a special kind of sweetness. Another actor, Riff Regan, was originally cast as Willow in the pilot, but the eventual casting of Alyson Hanningan was definitely the right choice.
Xander and Jesse join the girls, quickly followed by Cordelia, who breaks the news that an “extreme dead guy” was found in the girls’ locker room. Jesse is a bit too gross for my liking, with his insistent flirting and penchant for “nibbling” shoulders...
However, Cordelia benefits from Joss Whedon’s sparkling dialogue, with even the most mundane statements transformed into quirky delights, such as “Don’t you have an elsewhere to be?” and “Morbid much?”
What is the Slayer?
Buffy checks out the extreme dead guy’s suspiciously bite-like neck wound and goes to confront Giles. We’re now about to set up the main theme of the first season of Buffy: responsibility. Buffy is reluctant to take on her Slayer duties, because all she wants is the chance to be a normal girl. The role of the Slayer is a metaphor for adulthood, which only develops in significance as the series continues.
In this scene, Giles is arguing the case of adult responsibility, as Buffy’s destiny is to be the Slayer, and his job as a Watcher is to train her to fight the forces of darkness. He wants to act as her mentor, but this relationship will become much richer and more textured. However, at this starting point of the series, he is a symbol of authority and needs to remind Buffy about her duties as a Slayer.
As the confrontation comes to a close, Xander emerges from behind a bookshelf, exclaiming, “What?” Whoops.
Giles pursues Buffy to try and impress upon her the gravity of the situation. We then cut to a creepy vampire lair, and a deep, threatening voice, declaiming some kind of unholy prayer. The association between vampires and spirituality in this first season is interesting. The vampire we will know as Luke ends his prayer with “Amen.”
The theology of the Buffyverse is not a traditional Christian theology, but it co-opts certain aspects of religious imagery and language to convey a sense of ancient power and mystical threat. Crosses and holy water can be used to hurt vampires, but they are pretty much divorced from their Christian origins. As discussed on the Dusted podcast, I would also argue that they are used simply because they some of the traditional ways of combating vampires, and the religious aspect is not a significant part of this.
Femme and Femininity
Meanwhile, Buffy is choosing what outfit to wear, and introduces another preoccupation of Buffy as a show: the representation of femininity. Buffy lays out the virgin-whore dichotomy with absolute precision by comparing one outfit which makes her look like an “enormous slut” and the other which makes her look like a Jehovah’s Witness.
Buffy sometimes carelessly falls into the trap of the virgin-whore dichotomy, but when it is at its most thoughtful and progressive, it challenges the concept and provides a much more sex-positive message. In this case it is difficult to discern whether the show is critiquing the concept or merely buying into it.
Buffy is also allowed to maintain her femininity while battling demons and vampires. As powerful women are sometimes presented as un-feminine, Buffy avoids this pitfall by stating that women can be both femme and powerful.
Buffy bids goodbye to Joyce, and starts to wend her way to the Bronze, the local underage night-time hangout spot. In a dark alley, Buffy notices that she is being followed, and uses her considerable acrobatic skill to pin the stranger to the ground. He proclaims, “I don’t bite,” which may be significant later…
This is Angel, who at this point, is brooding, mysterious, cryptic guy with little character development or plot relevance. He gives Buffy a cross pendant necklace and disappears into the night. This meeting is here to set up a story later in the season but doesn’t really integrate with the rest of this episode.
Buffy meets Willow at the Bronze and learns about Willow and Xander’s long friendship. Buffy encourages Willow to “seize the moment” and not be frightened about speaking to boys. Giles also turns up and tries to get Buffy to concentrate on spotting vampires.
Buffy’s response is to provide a Legally Blonde style solution – there’s a guy whose clothes are “carbon dated” so he’s clearly lived underground for a decade. Giles is distressed that Buffy didn’t “hone”.
Buffy’s advice to Willow has unintended consequences as she leaves the Bronze with the badly-dressed vampire. It could be argued that this is a character break for Willow. However, the way I see it is that Willow is so delighted that Buffy has taken the time to speak to her and give her advice that she is motivated to "seize the moment" for herself.
Buffy pursues them and is startled by Cordelia. Before she realises who it is, she has already raised a stake to Cordelia’s throat. Cordelia has the iconic line: “What is your childhood trauma?” While Buffy continues her pursuit, Darla, the vampire from the cold open, chats with Jesse.
Let's Wrap This Up
Now for the final confrontation: Buffy catches up to Willow and the badly-dressed vampire in a crypt in one of Sunnydale’s many cemeteries. Buffy quips valiantly, comparing the vampire to DeBarge, which I learnt only today was a family R&B group in the 1980s, often compared to the Jacksons.
Jesse has been bitten by Darla, but he escapes with Willow and Xander, only to be confronted by a gang of vampires. Buffy battles Luke, who looms over her, about to bite… TO BE CONTINUED.
I'm never as interested in the fight scenes as the other aspects of Buffy, but Luke has a nice level of threat. He's more powerful than the other vampires, and his deep, booming voice lends a sense of authority to his delivery. The freeze-frame shot of his gaping jaws is pretty cheesy, but I am more tickled by this than irritated.
We'll just have to wait until next week to find out what happens next...